Family Textbooks Twelve Years Later

Norval D. Glenn

In 1996 I conducted an intensive study of twenty current family textbooks published in the United States, the results of which appeared in an academic journal article and a nonacademic report in 1997.1 The study included practical “functionalist” marriage and family textbooks and more academic sociology of the family books; these works comprised nearly all such works in print for which copies were obtainable.

The journal article attracted little attention, but the report, issued and distributed by the Institute for American Values, received extensive media coverage—including in the New York Times—and evoked angry, intemperate responses from many feminists and progressives who felt it was an attack on their values. In fact, the standards used to evaluate the books were not based on conservative ideology but rather on widely accepted academic standards of integrity, balance, accuracy, and intellectual rigor. Nevertheless, the report may have generated more heat than light, and much (probably most) of the discussion the report stimulated did not even deal with the substantive issues it covered. I have often wondered if either the report or the article had any appreciable effect on the content of family textbooks published since 1997.

Fortunately, several other factors have probably affected the content of recent textbooks. For instance, considerable new evidence about family topics has accumulated, and changes during the 1980s and early 1990s in the views of scholars and researchers about family structure effects may have had a delayed impact on family textbooks.2 Outside the academy, an influential body of “concerned” literature about recent family trends appeared in the 1990s, most notably David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s The Divorce Culture.3 It is unlikely that family textbook authors have been as directly affected by this literature as by academic publications, but it is also improbable that they have remained impervious to debates in intellectual and policy circles and to public opinion—all of which have been substantially affected by the concerned nonacademic literature about family issues.

In view of these several reasons for expecting changes in family textbooks, I eagerly agreed when the editors of Academic Questions asked me to do a modest follow-up to my 1996 study. In this assessment of a selection of current textbooks I focus mainly on whether the books have improved—speculating briefly on possible reasons why—and in what respects.

I chose seven current family textbooks to review, five of which are updated editions of books evaluated in 1996. These include the textbook I considered to be the best of the twenty studied and one of the worst. (Neither of the two I considered to be the very worst went into second editions, although one is still in print.) The remaining two consist of a seventh edition of a textbook not included in my original study and a first edition published in 2005 (see box).

A major criticism made in my original report was that the textbooks were adult-centered and gave insufficient attention to child-related topics; for example, only 7.1 percent of 338 chapters concentrated on family effects on children. Some important child-related topics received microscopic attention: less than two pages total in all twenty books covered family structure effects on delinquency—less even than the 4.5 pages devoted to swinging. Even certain crucial topics received little space, for instance, a mean of just over seven pages per book dealt with child abuse and neglect, compared with a mean of more than twelve pages on violence suffered by adults. I speculated that this imbalance was due to the fact that most child-related topics are covered in courses other than those on the family, and that family authors and textbook publishers are catering to the interests of the students, who are at one of the least child-centered stages of their lives.

There has been no discernible increase in coverage of child-related topics in the five current textbooks whose earlier editions I reviewed in 1996. For instance, three of their seventy-six chapters (3.9 percent) focus primarily on family effects on children, compared with four of the eighty-one chapters (4.9 percent) in the earlier editions. In the two new books reviewed, only one chapter of twenty-seven (3.7 percent) concentrates on how children are affected by the families in which they are raised. “Juvenile delinquency” appears in the index of just one book, and the term is used incidentally in two sentences devoted to other topics.4 None of the current books fails to deal with child abuse, but they devote almost twice the space to violence against adults, a mean of 5.6 and 10.4 pages respectively.

A dearth of attention to child-related topics by family researchers is not a reason for their slim treatment in the current textbooks. Consider the amount of attention given to family structure effects on children in the leading academic journal on family. According to a recent study, 18 percent of the articles published in the Journal of Marriage and Family from 1998 through 2002 dealt in some way with the topic, and that coverage rose steeply during the two decades preceding 1998.5 Obviously, there is a major difference between what researchers, research funders, and journal editors consider important and what the family textbooks emphasize.

Avoiding undue overlap with materials covered in other courses cannot be a major reason for the de-emphasis of child-related topics either, because the family textbooks do contain much material that overlaps with the subject matter of courses on gender, aging and the life course, social stratification, and racial and ethnic relations, among others. Furthermore, many of the child- and adolescent-related topics to which much family research is devoted are not extensively treated in child development courses, the long-term effects of divorce and its aftermath on the “children of divorce” being a salient example.

A perceived lack of interest by college students in family structure effects on children may partially account for the relative neglect of that topic in the textbooks, but I suspect a more important reason is a desire to avoid causing bad feelings among students raised in the kinds of families the evidence indicates are less than ideal. A substantial proportion of college students come from single-parent families, and some textbook authors and instructors are likely to fear that discussing the deficiencies of single-parent families would make those students feel uncomfortable and perhaps stigmatized. Such concern is well-intentioned but misplaced. College students are adults, and many are well aware of the deficiencies of the families in which they were raised. Trying to protect their feelings by avoiding important topics is patronizing and will make all students in family classes less prepared to make wise personal decisions and participate intelligently in public discussions about family issues.

Another criticism of the textbooks studied in 1996 was that they paid almost no attention to how marriage affects adults (an average of about 1.25 pages per book) and that much of the negligible coverage was biased in favor of an assertion made by Jessie Bernard in The Future of Marriage that marriage is typically harmful to women.6 The literature on how marriage affects adults had increased substantially in the decade before I conducted my study and generally did not support Bernard’s thesis, which was highly controversial even when it was first published in 1972.

The seven current textbooks reviewed devote only an average of 1.8 pages to how marriage affects adults, and three virtually ignore the topic. However, sympathetic treatment of Bernard’s thesis is absent, even though six cite her book, and five mention her concept of “his and her marriages,” noting that Bernard claimed that “his” marriage is typically better than “hers.” In other words, Bernard’s radical thesis of the drastically negative effects of marriage on women—she claimed that for a married woman “to be happy [she] must be slightly ill mentally”7—has been translated into a much more moderate and defensible proposition. Bernard is a revered figure in sociology who made important contributions, and thus I sympathize with the textbook authors’ desire to downplay a discredited aspect of her legacy. What is important is that the current textbooks do not present her wildly speculative assertions as fact, as did several of the textbooks in my original study.

In 1996 the textbook that gave the most space to the alleged negative effects of marriage on women was Diversity in Families, by Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, the current edition of which, with new co-author Barbara Wells, is among those reviewed for this article. Now Diversity in Families merely states that Bernard made an important contribution by observing that marriages are often experienced differently by husbands and wives (a claim with which I agree) and points out correctly that there is evidence that in some respects marriage is more beneficial for men than for women. The authors comment extensively, and generally favorably, on the work by Linda Waite and by Waite and Maggie Gallagher on the benefits of marriage, which is a dramatic change in emphasis from the earlier edition.8 There is minor bias in the treatment of the effects of marriage on adults, such as when the authors belabor the obvious in saying that not all marriages are beneficial to the spouses and that the economic benefits of marriage are relatively low in subpopulations in which male earnings are low. Still, the discussion is reasonably, and unexpectedly, balanced, and Diversity in Families devotes slightly more space to this important topic (more than five pages) than all the other current textbooks examined. Only Marriages and Families: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths, by David H. Olson, John DeFrain, and Linda Skogrand, devotes almost as much space as Diversity in Families to the impact of marriage on adults and emphasizes its positive effects.

My original study may have contributed to the improved treatment of this topic because there was some retreat from the Bernard thesis in textbooks published shortly after 1997. However, the main reason for the change is almost certainly the publication in 2000 of Waite and Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage, which is cited in six of the textbooks reviewed here (the seventh cites other work by Waite concerning the effects of marriage on adults). Waite is a prominent demographer and sociology professor at the University of Chicago, and thus it is not surprising that her presentation of extensive evidence that marriage generally benefits women has apparently put the Bernard thesis to rest.

In my original study I also found that several of the family textbooks offered highly stereotypical, oversimplified representations of public and scholarly attitudes on controversial issues, often failing to distinguish between centrist and distinctly conservative views. Conservative and centrist views tended to be depicted as more extreme than they were. For instance, in Contemporary Families and Relationships John Scanzoni wrote that sociologist and marriage and family life expert David Popenoe (a centrist) believed that “married couples with children should not divorce.”9 Popenoe never took that position, and even the most extreme conservatives have rarely claimed that married couples with children should not divorce under any circumstances.

None of the current textbooks examined fully considers the complexity of ideological positions on family issues, but only Diversity in Families engages in crude stereotyping such as that in Contemporary Families and Relationships—and is even more irresponsible in its representation of ideological factions and specific scholars. For instance, Zinn, Eitzen, and Wells fail to acknowledge the views characteristic of centrists, moderate liberals, and moderate conservatives, even though these views are held by a majority of the general public and by at least a large minority of family scholars.10 Anyone who does not espouse the authors’ brand of liberalism is portrayed in extreme terms, and those who believe that some family trends of the past few decades have had detrimental consequences are charged with a desire to reverse all recent family trends, including those that have benefitted women.

The authors seem unaware of evidence that a majority of Americans now hold egalitarian gender role attitudes and at the same time have concerns about the effects on children of the huge increase in single-parent families over the past few decades. This is the same combination of attitudes held by some of the family scholars (myself included) whom the authors’ falsely accuse of wanting to resurrect the sole breadwinner family. Students reading Diversity in Families will get the impression that anyone who does not take an entirely sanguine view of all aspects of family diversity is motivated by a desire to keep women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen—a gross distortion of the complex interrelationships among family-related attitudes and values.

In a section titled “The Ideological Fault Lines,” the authors devote disproportionate space to characterizing conservatives and describing what they call “the conservative credo” (italics added).11 Among the attitudes they attribute to all conservatives (and to the centrists they incorrectly label as conservatives) are considering homosexuality a sin and opposition to homosexual rights legislation (presumably all such legislation), employment of mothers outside the home, no-fault divorce, and the overturning of sodomy laws. Of course, some conservatives fit this description, but from my ongoing extensive examination of survey data on family-related attitudes, I estimate that less than one-third of self-identified conservatives and hardly any centrists do. At one point the authors insert “social” before “conservative,” but this only slightly lessens the seriousness of the misrepresentation, because many social conservatives, including religious ones, do not fit the stereotype. Except for a brief quotation from Jerry Falwell, the characterization of conservatives is based on literature written by progressives, whereas the depiction of progressives comes entirely from literature written by progressives.

In my original study I uncovered considerable ideological bias in the textbooks, although, contrary to some of its critics, this was not the central finding. The current textbooks reviewed fare much better in this respect; the authors of all but one seem committed to the ideal of balance and fairness in the treatment of controversial topics and to avoiding dogmatic conclusions on matters about which the empirical evidence is ambiguous and inconsistent. I also judge that these same authors consider political or ideological indoctrination in a textbook to be inappropriate. I did find a few instances of bias in their books, but most are relatively minor. When I reviewed the earlier edition of Marriages and Families: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths, by David H. Olson, John DeFrain, and Linda Skogrand (not a co-author of that edition), I judged it to have greater than average ideological bias, but the current edition does not.

I take some credit for the positive changes in the current textbook editions, having corresponded with some of their authors about the problem of bias after my 1997 article and report appeared. However, I suspect the main reason for the decline in bias is the general change in attitudes about family issues over the past two decades in the academy, intellectual and policy circles, and the general public that I mention earlier in this article.

Although bias is rare in six of the current textbooks reviewed, it is frequent in the seventh one. That book, Diversity in Families, is the strangest textbook I have ever examined, rising to excellence in some places—it has, for instance, a superb summary of the evidence of the effects of divorce on men and women—but sinking to the lowest levels of bias and distortion in others.

The bias begins in the first chapter in a section titled “The Mythical U. S. Family” in which several alleged myths about American families are discussed. This discussion follows an unfortunate tradition in which those on all sides of the so-called “family wars” have participated: views with which the authors disagree are labeled myths and straw men are attacked. A “real” myth is a widely accepted belief that is definitely incorrect—whereas an “alleged” myth, in this tradition, is often either a belief not widely accepted or a belief about which the evidence is inconclusive and sometimes largely supportive. The alleged myths discussed in Diversity in Families are of both kinds.

Discussion of some of the alleged myths follows the lead of such authors as Stephanie Coontz in claiming that many people idealize the 1950s family, want to resurrect it, and believe that almost all families once mirrored the example of Ozzie and Harriett. Zinn, Eitzen, and Wells assert that such beliefs and sentiments have been common but do not present supporting evidence. In fact, any such evidence is scant. In my ongoing extensive examination of survey data on family-related attitudes, which draws on surveys conducted since the 1970s, I have found some nostalgia for the 1950s family, in the sense that those who grew up in the 1950s often look back fondly on their childhood and adolescence, but I have found very little belief that we should try to bring back all aspects of family life of that era. For instance, opposition to the participation of married women and mothers in the workforce has been rare, although the view that mothers of infants should stay home with them for the first year or two has been fairly common. In other words, much of the discussion of alleged myths in Diversity in Families attacks views very few people actually hold or have held in recent decades. This is also an example of the book’s distorted presentation of ideological positions.

The last and most problematic alleged myth Diversity in Families addresses is that family decline is the cause of social problems. The belief is widespread, but it is not undeniably incorrect. The evidence that aspects of what the authors refer to as “family decline,” for example the increase in single-parent families, can be found at the root of social problems is strong and compelling, if not conclusive. This is clearly an instance where the authors take a dogmatic stand on an issue when the evidence does not support it and is, in fact, generally inconsistent with their position.

The discussion of this alleged myth is flawed in several ways. For instance, the authors approvingly paraphrase Judith Stacey, sociologist at New York University’s Center of the Study of Gender and Sexuality, when they write: “Those who persist in seeing the current shifts in family life as the source of disarray have it backward….Divorce and single parenthood are the consequences of social and economic dislocations rather than the cause, as some would have us believe” (21, italics in original). This statement replaces one simplistic, indefensible one-way causation thesis—which nearly no social scientist or sophisticated lay commentator on family issues espouses—with an equally simplistic, indefensible thesis that is the reverse of the one replaced. There is undoubtedly reciprocal causation between family trends and other trends and facets of society, and it is legitimate for some purposes to emphasize specific aspects of those reciprocal effects while not denying the others. That is the position of most who think that some recent family trends have contributed to social problems.

Exaggerations of the views of those the authors consider opponents abound in Diversity in Families, and some of the worst instances are in their discussion of the alleged myths. They write: “Many proponents of strong family values overstate the evidence…that children are always better off in two-parent families. Not all social scientists agree that family structure is all that matters” (21). In fact, few anywhere on the ideological spectrum have asserted that children are always better off in two-parent families, and I am not aware that any social scientist has ever claimed that family structure is all that matters.

In an extensive discussion of welfare policy, the authors devote separate sections to conservative and progressive positions (489–97). The progressive section is an argument for that point of view, while the conservative section rebuts the views discussed and includes numerous citations to and quotes from critics of conservative positions. One does not have to be a conservative to consider this unfair and inappropriate in a college textbook. Here, and elsewhere, Diversity in Families is overtly ideological, with the authors making no attempt at balanced treatment.

Other criticisms of the textbooks in my 1997 article and report were that some had overly wide margins, which meant that students were paying for about one hundred pages of blank space per book, that too much space was devoted to fluff, and that many of the pictures bore no direct relation to the subject matter and had trite captions. The importance of these flaws is not only that they pointlessly increased the cost of the textbooks but that they also used up space that could have been devoted to important topics either ignored or inadequately covered.

In the current textbooks, such flaws are not serious enough to mention had I not given them considerable attention in my 1997 article and report. The earlier editions of two books reviewed here—Marriage and Family: The Quest for Intimacy, by Robert H. Lauer and Jeanette C. Lauer, and The Marriage and Family Experience: Intimate Relationships in a Changing Society, by Brian Strong, Christine DeVault, and Theodore F. Cohen—had overly wide margins, but the margins in the current editions are normal. Marriage and Family was the worst offender for irrelevant artwork and trite captions, but the current edition is much improved. All the books still contain too much fluff for my taste, but that may be necessary for appealing to today’s visually-oriented students. These improvements are most likely the ones to which my 1997 article and report substantially contributed, although, of course, they also may have resulted from other influences, such as an increased concern about the rising cost of college textbooks.

In my original study I found that the textbooks contained many factual errors, misrepresentations of literature, and even a few cases where the contents of journal articles were associated with the titles of different articles. The current textbooks are also riddled with errors, including some mismatches of article title and content, but many of the mistakes are minor. Here I blame the production process rather than the authors of these textbooks. The books cover a wide range of topics and cite hundreds of publications, well over a thousand per book in some cases. As far as I know, all the authors devote much of their time to tasks other than textbook writing, and thus it would be impossible for one, two, or even three authors to have read all the cited literature carefully. In my original study I found several cases of identical citation errors in two or more books—clear evidence that the authors were sometimes (probably frequently) drawing on other textbooks rather than on primary sources. I found no such errors in my current review, but perhaps only because of the smaller number of books examined and my less thorough evaluation of them.

If truly excellent textbooks are to be published, the way textbooks are produced needs to change. For instance, a book could have one to three primary authors, but with many of the chapters being co-authored by specialists on the topics they cover. I once proposed such a book to several publishers. None was interested, citing among other reasons that dealing with multiple authors would be too much trouble.

Given that I reviewed only seven books for this article, I must be tentative in drawing conclusions about trends in the quality of family textbooks. However, were it not for Diversity in Families, this article would be decidedly more upbeat than my original article and report. Of the five textbooks previously reviewed, I judge that all but Public and Private Families: An Introduction, by Andrew J. Cherlin, have improved, and this one exception results from my positive evaluation of the earlier edition of the book. The first edition I reviewed—Families in Context: An Introduction, by Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman and Teresa M. Cooney—is well-balanced and of overall good quality, which may reflect a change in what book publishers think family course instructors want.

The apparent commercial success of Diversity in Families (currently in its eighth edition) is, of course, worrisome to those of us who believe that ideological indoctrination in college courses is inappropriate and exploits the power difference between instructor and student. However, the apparent fact that new editions of established textbooks are less ideologically biased on average than earlier editions, and that new textbooks are generally not highly biased (I also examined a few first editions not reviewed here when they appeared in the first few years following my 1996 study) is encouraging. Perhaps the more biased textbooks are serving a shrinking niche market—a possibility worthy of further investigation.

My relatively positive evaluation of six of the seven textbooks reviewed here does not mean that I believe sufficiently motivated authors and publishers could not substantially improve the books. Truly excellent textbooks may not be forthcoming, given the way the books are produced, but it should be fairly easy to improve the books further by tilting them more toward child-related topics and aligning their coverage with the emphases of current family research. Publishers should be able to afford to improve the review process by adequately paying qualified specialists to evaluate the coverage of topics relevant to their expertise and by not relying so heavily on instructors as reviewers, which would place more emphasis on quality control and less on marketing research. Unfortunately, market forces seem inadequate to bring about all the efforts needed for improvement, and it is not apparent what, other than the conscientiousness of family textbook authors and publishers, could do so.

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